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Robotic vs Business Process Automation

Automation seems to be the word on every CEO and business owners’ lips in 2019. News sites everywhere have a new article on the latest automation, and the general public fear of machines replacing their jobs is at the top of news headlines across the UK. But, is the fear justified? Should we be afraid of automation? The answer, in the main, is no.

The famous Allan F. Mogensen quote, “work smarter, not harder” is particularly relevant in the discussions of automation. Why, as a business, would you hire people instead of a machine that can fulfil the relevant tasks at half the speed? Automation makes businesses more effective, less costly in the long run and faster at turning around products, processing data or fulfilling core business processes. Automation, no matter the form it comes in, creates jobs for people where there is a real need for the human touch or when creativity is required, something that automation cannot bring. Traditionally automation removes pointless, menial tasks from people, so that they can be redeployed into different part of the business, where they can have more impact.

Different types of automation

There’s lots of ways that a business can automate its processes. Automation types include: computer-aided manufacturing, robots, computer integrated manufacturing and information technology, and depending on factors like business size, turnover and employee count, some automations will be more relevant than others to each individual business. Two automations types we are focusing on today is:

  • Robotic – automation using robots and other mechanical ‘helpers’ to achieve tasks. Used frequently in the food industry to pack food at a high rate, traditionally expensive and carry a large upfront cost. Another aspect of robotic automation is 3D printing – a technology which is very much on the rise and will play an important part of the future automated landscape.
  • Software based – automation that is contained within software solutions. An example is business management software that contains automation for processes like stock and purchase updates. Business owners don’t have to go in and edit the amount of stock they have for each item whenever someone buys something, the process is automated, so stock levels update as stock moves in and out of a business.

The third type of automation is Artificial Intelligence (AI), we are not discussing here, as it is still some way off into the future. How far in the future is a matter of some debate, however, for now we will concern ourselves with more familiar territory.

This article will discuss the differences between robotic and business process automation. We will also highlight some famous examples of robotic automation and consider what the pros and cons are for each.

Robotic automation

First, let’s look at some of the businesses that are most famous for using robots:

  • Amazon – the eCommerce giant is notorious for its automated approach. Its warehouses around the world have 100,000 fulfilment robots working 24/7 to grab items ordered by customers, and pack them up as efficiently as possible. The estimated cost of the robots in 2012 (when they were first purchased) was a staggering £587 million. Amazon have also dabbled with staff-less shopping experiences. Their Amazon Go stores are powered by sophisticated tracking systems that monitor everything picked up (and put down) whilst in store, with final purchases being added to the Amazon basket and payment deducted as the shopper exists the store.
  • Adidas – in 2017, Adidas opened its first automated factory, with robot-made shoes a recent addition to their business. The Futurecraft M.F.G. shoe was one of the first robot-made shoes produced by Adidas, and after being unveiled late 2016, they moved onto making more of their shoe line with the help of their robot friends.
  • Tesla – car companies such as Tesla are well known for replacing a lot of their staff with robotics. Tesla’s £3.9bn Gigafactory 1 located in the Nevada desert, which is still under construction, will be home to robots doing the vast majority of work, with around 10,000 staff members employed to oversee the robot workforce.

Pros

If we look more generally at robotics, some of the benefits include:

  • Reliability – one of the obvious benefits of robots is their reliability. While they do require maintenance and occasionally break, the downtime would be considerably less than the equal amount of staff taking sick days.
  • Fast – robots are much faster than people at completing tasks, and in some examples are up to five times faster. This means tasks are completed faster and the return is evident more quickly.
  • Effective – with their increased working speeds compared to humans, robots also have a much higher level of accuracy. When programmed correctly, they have a very low failure rate, ensuring every product produced, and every process completed, is done with almost 100% accuracy.
  • Takes away laborious jobs that aren’t suited for humans – robots can span across many different sectors, but due to their semi-advanced nature, they’re unable to complete jobs that require a lot of dexterity. Examples include fixing doors to the cars at the Honda factories; robots don’t fulfil these tasks because they can’t. As a result, this ensures that robots can fill in and complete tasks that are very simple for humans, like stamping, painting and welding in car factories. This allows the human staff members to complete more advanced tasks that challenge them, allowing for skills development and a greater degree of job fulfilment.

Cons

  • Replacing hard workers – Whilst we discussed earlier that there shouldn’t be fear surrounding physical automation and the future of robotics, there is certainly an aspect of job loss as robots become more common. Those that have worked for years in the same role may struggle to relocate once a robot takes over their job. The transition will be manageable though, as it will only be larger businesses that will be able to afford to change in the short to medium term.
  • Expensive – this is robot dependant, as some robots end up being cheaper than hiring people for the return they can bring. However, if we look at examples like Amazon and Tesla, there is a large startup cost to be considered. This has to be balanced with the opportunities of scale this brings to business, which may ultimately end up creating more jobs for the previous displaced human workers.
  • Useless in unpredictable situations – when in a controlled environment robotics thrive. But in unpredictable situations they react poorly compared to humans. There would be a massive loss if, for example, a natural disaster was to occur, and the building collapsed – humans would be able to escape easily, but robots would continue their jobs unless programmed to do otherwise.
  • Programmed by humans – robotics always have an element of human error, because they’re made and programmed by humans. If they’re programmed incorrectly, or something goes wrong with them, a whole warehouse powered by robots could go down in a second.
  • Risky – in the example of the Tesla robots, robotics are slowing down processes because they’re too high risk. Having them complete every task a human would can cause problems in the final assembly of products and can slow down the whole production. There seems to be a current happy medium with robotics, whereby they replace some jobs, but not all of them, otherwise there is a high risk of a loss of quality and care in products.

 

Who are they useful for?

If you’re an online seller or have an eCommerce store, robots are probably not right for you. They’re most suited for large corporations that have the capital to ensure their upkeep and restoration if necessary.

Business process automation

What is business process automation?

Business process automation is used, in this context, to describe software solutions (such as Khaos Control Cloud) that can automate certain parts of a business. These solutions most often focus on the automation of tasks that are often completed manually, such as stock taking, and ensure that businesses are as efficient as they can be.

Pros

  • Effective – like robotics, business process automation breeds effectiveness. They remove the possibility for human error in tasks as well as completing and reaching goals a lot faster than the average person.
  • Lower risk than robotics – while robots are traditionally used in the manufacturing and food industries to create products or package goods, business process automation features more within the back-office management of a business. So, while robotics take care of building larger products and finishing off big scale projects, business process automation ensures the key parts of a business, like customer relationships or stock numbers, are as up to date as possible. This lower risk approach means that businesses have a lot less to lose when investing in business automation compared to robotics.
  • 24/7 working – automations within the back-office of a business can run even if no one is in office. Compared to robots that may need staff to watch over them and ensure they’re working correctly, business automation doesn’t require additional staff. This means 24/7 working, all year round, fulfilling key processes within a business.
  • Integration with other systems – automations within business software provide more connection flexibility compared to robotics. You can integrate your automations with other systems that power your business, so for example, if you had an automation to update a certain piece of data, when this automation occurs this update is pushed out to the systems integrated with your business management software. This prevents multiple manual updates across your systems, will save you time and reduce the human error aspect of data inputting.

Cons

  • Limitations on what can be automated – with business automation of this sort, there is a limit to what can be automated and what still requires the input of an actual person.
  • Over reliance – automated processes have so many positives that this can then lead to over reliance. Our current technology-focused culture breeds trust in things like automation, which can cause business owners to be overly lax when dealing with them. So, when an automation fails, or stops working for whatever reason, no one notices. This could be because they have a lot of automated processes and pinpointing the one that is broken is easier said than done, or that they have a heightened level of trust for their automated processes, meaning they don’t have other procedures in place to ensure their automations are regularly checked.

Who is business process automation most useful for?

Business automation in the form of an application can be used by any size of business but is most commonly seen in SMEs. The scalable nature of business process automation (automation can occur in one part of a business at first i.e. stock updates, and then more automation can be invested in as the business grows) suits small to medium sized businesses. This is because SMEs are looking to speed up their processes without spending a lot of money.

Automating certain functions in a small business, like pick, pack and despatch for example, prevents the need for additional staff if the company can yet to afford paying anyone else, and also ensures tasks are completed effectively in the background in an ongoing fashion.

Conclusion

Automation, in whatever form, is the future. It is our recommendation to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and evaluate business needs in relation to automation. Automations, either robotic or business process-wise, are dependent on business size for the most part. It seems that traditionally larger businesses use robots, whereas small ones go for the more cost-effective business process option. However, there will be some crossover, and bigger businesses are likely to be using business process automation, and have been for years, and are now moving onto robotics to increase their production speed and value.

Article by Mike Cockfield, CEO, Khaos Control Solutions

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